Wifi-enabled thermostats can deliver substantial efficiency benefits when they’re used, but the trick is expanding deployment to as many households as possible. Broadening the range of wifi thermostats that can link up to any utility’s demand response program could help to achieve that.
Home thermostat technology has made evolutionary leaps and bounds, such as the transition from one-way to two-way communication with the utility, and from manual to remote control via smart phone app. As we reported previously, Honeywell data indicate that over 80% of homeowners with the company’s wifi-enabled thermostats manage them via mobile app.
And expanding the use of wifi-enabled thermostats that allow homeowners to connect to demand response programs – programs that offer utility customers incentives to cut their consumption during peak demand times - could yield substantial energy efficiency benefits. If 25% of US homes with central air conditioning used technology similar to Honeywell’s wifi-enabled thermostats to ease implementation of DR programs, the country could temporarily reduce electricity demand by up to 19 gigawatts during times of peak use, according to the company.
Not all wifi-enabled thermostats are compatible with all DR programs, which limits the ability of customers to participate in these programs. But this is beginning to change. Honeywell announced this morning that its entire suite of wifi-enabled thermostats now has the capacity to link up to any US utility’s DR program.
“The full suite of Honeywell wifi thermostats will be able to receive a software upgrade that will allow any homeowner to participate in a utility program, assuming the utility offers this program,” Paul Carp, Market Manager of Honeywell Smart Grid Solutions, told Breaking Energy.
And all of these thermostats – from the most basic to the most advanced, which is voice-activated – will be available at retailers across the country. “Retailers – Home Depot, Lowe’s, Amazon, all the way down to your local hardware store – would have access to these devices, which are already DR-ready,” Carp said.
“Previously, electric companies would give customers technology to participate in an energy-savings program; however, there was limited choice and the devices came directly from the utility. Homeowners can now buy any Honeywell Wi-Fi thermostat, from a retail store or contractor, and enroll,” Carp said.
The opportunity to participate in DR programs will expand even to customers with wifi-enabled thermostats whose local utilities do not yet offer them. “If the utility wants to take those points and turn it into a utility program, we can remotely upgrade that device so that they can participate in those programs,” Carp said.
One of Honeywell’s previous experiences with mass deployment of smart thermostats, which involved a multi-year recruitment effort for Baltimore Gas and Electric, suggests that when the technology is made more readily available to customers, they use it at far higher rates. While residential DR participation rates generally average around 7-10%, rates in the Baltimore G&E service area are greater than 35%, a figure Carp called “astronomical”.
But even with widespread deployment of smart thermostats, utility participation will still be critical to maximizing their effectiveness in reducing energy consumption. Among variables that can affect how many customers opt to buy and use wifi-enabled “smart” thermostats include utility incentives, such as rebates for smart thermostat purchases.
How a utility implements DR programs also matters. Some shed strategies are less invasive than others. Homeowners generally are not even aware of cycling – in which an HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) unit runs 50% of the time over a multi-hour window – or a temperature offset of a few degrees, said Carp. But if a utility raises a home thermostat by a large amount, for example, by 9 degrees farenheit, then the customer is more likely to notice.
The utility’s goal in offering a DR program – whether to meet regulatory standards, mitigate peak demand charges, or provide customers with a greater level of service – can dictate how it is structured, according to Carp. But low customer satisfaction is as good an argument as any for providing the customer with more options, and getting him or her more involved.
“A recent study about customer satisfaction with utilities showed that it’s at a low point, and some of that has to do with the reliability challenges with storms, etc,” he said. “Enabling the utility to offer that control back to the customer is a new concept. The utility is providing a new type of customer service.”
Beyond bringing more customers into play for potential participation in DR events, wider availability of wifi-enabled thermostats may encourage more utilities to develop DR programs. “If you start giving the utility a lot more options – six of seven wifi thermostats with a range of prices and features – it gives them more options to potentially provide a service for their customers,” Carp said.